Amber samples from western Canada containing dinosaur and avian feathers have produced the most detailed picture of feather evolution yet observed.
Eleven remnants depict the evolution of hair-like “filaments” to contemporary birds’ doubly-branched feathers.
Science published an examination of the 80-million-year-old amber deposits.
The discovery, together with an essay on feather pigmentation, contributes to the theory that many dinosaurs had feathers, some of which were vividly colored.
In recent years, there has been a surge in stories concerning the origins of feathers as we know them today in birds.
Compression fossils discovered in China show the shape of early “filament” feathers that are more comparable to hair.
However, current feathers are extremely branching and organized, and the fossil record has yet to provide the complete narrative of how they evolved.
A study of amber from the Late Cretaceous era discovered at Grassy Lake in Alberta has produced a broad spectrum of feather shapes that show the development.
“We’re discovering two endpoints of the evolutionary history that had been hypothesized for feathers trapped in the same amber deposit,” said lead scientist Ryan McKellar of the University of Alberta.
The discovery demonstrates that individual filaments evolved into tufts of filaments from a single origin known as barbs.
Later in development, several of these barbs might join together to form a central branch known as a rachis. As the structure grows, new branches of filments emerge from the rachis.
“We’ve got feathers that look like small filamentous hair-like feathers, we’ve got the same filaments joined together in clumps, and then we’ve got a series that look exactly like current feathers,” Mr McKellar said to BBC News.
“We’re capturing some that seem to be dinosaur feathers, as well as those that are dead ringers for current birds.”
By the Late Cretaceous, feathers had almost reached the end of their development, and it is just fortunate that specimens containing the whole spectrum of distinct feather types were preserved in the same amber deposit.
“We’ve known for a long time that several of the non-bird dinosaurs had feathers, and many of them had feathers that are identical to the feathers you see on a pigeon in the park today,” said Mark Norell, chairman of the American Museum of Natural History’s palaeontology division, who was not involved in the research.
“What’s fascinating is the range of feathers that were present in [these] non-avian dinosaurs that survived quite close to that time gap when those creatures vanished approximately 65 million years ago,” he told the BBC.
The highest developed feathers look nearly like down and resemble those of water-dwelling and diving birds. Mr McKellar, on the other hand, said that none of the feathers were designed for flying, but rather for an ever-more complicated decoration technique.
A second research published in Science looks at another facet of the ornamentation: color.
Feathers get their color from structures in their cells called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same substance that gives us our skin color.
The study of melanosome fragments has previously shown that one of the earliest feathered dinosaurs identified, the Sinosauropteryx, was a “redhead.”
However, the melanosomes of feathers, or the melanin they leave behind, are frequently destroyed over time, providing little hints as to what color a particular dinosaur might have been.
Roy Wogelius of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has discovered a technique for detecting minuscule quantities of metal atoms left behind by eumelanin, one of the forms of melanin responsible for a variety of black and brown colors, using high-energy beams of light from a synchrotron.
“Perfect color awareness is unlikely unless in possibly unusual situations,” Dr. Wogelius said in a July online talk about the research.
“However, with technical developments, we are hopeful that we may be able to identify molecular subtleties more than just dark and light patterning.”
In reality, evidence is accumulating that many dinosaurs were not the dull-colored, reptilian-skinned animals traditionally considered to be.
“If you transported yourself back 80 million years to western North America and walked around the forest… many of the creatures would have been feathered,” Dr Norell said.
“We’re finding more and more evidence… that these creatures, like birds today, were vividly colored.”
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